Archive for July, 2013

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Computer-Illiteracy

Working in tech support, I often hear people tell me how computer-illiterate they are. Sometimes they even tell me that they think they’re stupid. I don’t think that computer-illiteracy is the result of stupidity so much as a self-fulfilling prophecy, fed by an industry that makes money off the myth that products can just work with no understanding necessary. I believe that everyone who uses a computer would benefit from a little basic knowledge about how they work, so I think this cycle of ignorance needs to be broken.

Part of the problem is that thinking you’re bad at anything can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: People who have a tough time with computers convince themselves that they’re not good with computers, so they have lose interest or get frustrated and so spend less time trying to learn. This means they end up not knowing much about computers, which causes them to have a tough time with computers. You could replace computers with sports, music, or just about anything, and the principle would still apply.

But the industry seems to feed into this problem by convincing people that their devices should just work without their having to know very much about them. So when, inevitably, something doesn’t just work, these people think that they must be extra stupid. They don’t understand the basics because they think everything should be obvious. Because they think they’re missing something obvious, and because manufacturers try so hard to hide how the computer actually works, these less tech-savvy users get fed up and discouraged from even trying to learn the basics.

Consequently, many users are missing fundamental information about the computer systems they use. They don’t know the difference between a Web page and a native smart phone app—or even a desktop app in some cases. They don’t know what a Web browser is, the difference between it and a search engine, or that there’s a boundary between the browser and the page it’s displaying. Some don’t even know that the desktop or the Windows 8 Start screen isn’t the Internet. Never mind the distinction between the local wireless network and the Internet.

I’m sure that, to many, this all sounds like technobabble that they can safely ignore. It’s not. It’s basic stuff. It’s like the difference between your car and the highway and gasoline.

If we’re going to break this cycle, we’ll have to convince people of two things: First, that they are smart enough to understand basic information about computers, and second, that this information is worth learning.

The second point is easy enough to demonstrate if we go back to that bit I mentioned earlier about things not just working like they’re supposed to. When you expect things to just work and you don’t know or care how, you’re lost when they inevitably fail. But if you know a little bit about how the pieces fit together, you’ll usually be able to take the first steps toward figuring out what went wrong and why, which in turn is the first step toward fixing it. Does that mean you’ll actually be able to fix it yourself? Not always, but it will give you a better idea of whom you need to call for help and what to tell them. That can save you time, and maybe even money. Sound good?

The first point might be a little bit harder to demonstrate, since it contradicts the deeply-entrenched idea that computers are just too hard for normal people, who should therefore let someone else hold their hands and do the thinking for them. I like to hope that we could fight this by putting the information out there in a really simple and easily-understood form, and letting people decide for themselves whether it’s too hard. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I’d be willing to try it.

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